My grandfather worked at a University in the British India. He acquired British accent and a fondness for the foreign language. My dad inherited this love for English and ensured our spellings were flawless too, through rigorous dictations. Never thought the language would help him and our connection with him in his last days.
English was and still is—in a large part of India—a language of the privileged.It inspires awe and respect.Relatives from mom’s side jokingly called dad an English snob—and he was one, to some degree.
His interviews for a groom for my elder sister commenced with a handshake and a boisterous English,‘How do you do?’The nervous suitor moved to the next level of meeting the sister only after passing this test in English fluency.
Last two years of his life, dad became paraplegic; his memory plummeted. He recognized only my mom and grew acutely paranoid, wary of everyone.He remained quiet but a question in English garnered a reply.
”How are you today, dad”, diminished the distance in his faraway eyes and he replied heartily,”I am very fine, how are you, friend?”
“Would you like some tea?” used to beget an enthusiastic answer:”Most definitely,why not!”
When the attendant who bathed and fed him approached him, he shouted—‘This man is dangerous,don’t let him come near me’—knowing that the man couldn’t understand a word. Those were meant for his trusted ones in his hour of need.
He had to be interviewed privately by a lawyer for legal matters.Mom waited anxiously outside the curtains when his voice rang out loud and clear—”She is my wife.Ask her what you want.Do not bother me”.That sealed the lawyer’s lips.Mom got the authority to sign on his behalf.
All of us tried to distract him when he was in the throes of unknown fear, shivering and perspiring at the same time. I held up newspapers for him to read. He could read but couldn’t comprehend.Old albums, favorite music and other Internet suggested methods failed.
One day, I started quizzing him the ABCs and he enjoyed it. There on, he started signaling me to him when he was a little lucid. A for? B for? I cheerfully started; he answered promptly, not like a child but like a maven—‘K for knowledge’, ’P for prosperity, population’,’L for luxury’.I was happy at the breadth of his answers.
The response that never changed and lacerated me was D for daughter. I always paused there, stared at him in the eye, hoping for some recognition, but he immediately interrupted –‘Who are you, what do you want’ or ‘Teacher, why don’t you talk’.
I swallowed and moved on to E.